WRITTEN REVIEW – The Walk (2015)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale & Ben Schwartz
Music: Alan Silvestri
Release Date: October 2nd 2015
On August 7th 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and a group of associates snuck inside the the World Trade Center towers in New York to commit the artistic crime of the century. The group managed to hang a high-wire between the two 1,350 metre towers allowing Petit to walk across in front of hundreds of spectators. The event has been covered well in the past, most notably in the 2008 Academy Award winning documentary by James Marsh; ‘Man on Wire‘. However, in that documentary or even in general, there is no actual footage of the event, only photos taken by photographer Jean Lewis.
Enter Robert Zemeckis. While he’s recently been dabbling in motion-capture technology with animated films such as ‘The Polar Express‘, ‘Beowulf‘ and ‘A Christmas Carol‘, he was one of the most acclaimed live-action directors on the planet with ‘Back to the Future‘, ‘Forrest Gump‘ ‘Cast Away‘ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘, the latter of which dealt with both live-action and animation. In terms of technically proficient directors, few of them have such an esteemed résumé. Although the biopic is a realm he has not dabbled in before. But, having seen his biopic based off the life of Philippe Petit, I can’t think of a better director for the job.
‘The Walk‘ follows the life of Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt) from him discovering his love of high-wire walking to getting trained by experienced circus performer Papa Rudy (Kingsley), meeting fellow street-performer Annie (Le Bon) and discovering the construction of the World Trader Center towers. Petit narrates the story to the audience and explains his plan to walk between the two towers before they’ve finished being constructed, which he describes as “le coup”. But Petit and his accomplices must finish their plan before the Twin Towers are built and not get arrested as they attempt to commit the crime.
It’s in the opening moments of ‘The Walk‘ where a turtleneck wearing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit speaks directly to the camera/audience in a preposterous french accent about his need and desire to conquer the two towers by walking across them in the sky. It’s after this unexpected cold-open where ‘The Walk‘ reveals itself to be a live-action fairytale. Philippe Petit in the documentary ‘Man on Wire‘ said that he considered his story to be “a fairytale” and that’s the mentality that ‘The Walk‘ goes into this story with. It may turn off many audience members expecting something with more depth and pathos, akin to Zemeckis’ live-action fare such as ‘Forrest Gump‘ and ‘Flight‘, but if you can get on the same wavelength as ‘The Walk‘ then you’ll be in for a treat.
There is a slight air of unreality to ‘The Walk‘ from its presentation, such as the out-there cinematography, inventive use of green-screen and clever use of black-and-white footage. But a lot of that comes from the attitude of Philippe Petit himself and his narration, while hardly subtle and giving very little room for audience interpretation (fairytale, remember?). ‘The Walk‘ is a romanticised interpretation of what is already considered by many to be a romantic story meaning that ‘The Walk‘s portrayal of Petit is an incredibly glowing and infatuated presentation. There’s not much commentary regarding the type of self-absorbed, selfish and egotistical person that you would need to be in order to attempt to pull off something like this.
But if you’re asking “Why would somebody want to risk his life to do something like this?” then ‘The Walk‘ does deliver on an answer and does a great job at getting the audience inside Philippe’s head. Even if you don’t understand why someone would want to do something so crazy, you will root for Philippe to succeed because it means so much to him. His enthusiasm and passion is infectious and since Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so game for this seemingly outlandish person with his portrayal and willingness to commit to the first-person narration, it means that we’re left with an endearing protagonist.
Incidentally, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s accent might sound incredibly cartoonish, if you have heard the real-life Philippe Petit speak then you’ll realise that Gordon-Levitt has the accent nailed.
The rest of the cast aren’t afforded the same level as depth, though the cast are still commendable. Ben Kingsley is good as Petit’s mentor who wants to help, but knows that he will very likely die, Charlotte Le Bon plays Petit’s girlfriend who wants to help but knows that he will very likely die and there’s photographer Jean-Lewis played by Clément Sibony who wants to help but knows that Petit will very likely die.
Yeah…the supporting cast are really lacking in depth on a script-level.
Their performances are strong, but all personality is brought to them by the actors, including an always-awesome Steve Valentine as their “inside man” who worked on the 82nd floor of the south tower. There is one character (whose name I cannot remember or find online) whose single personality trait is that he’s a stoner who is always high. When he’s over 100 floors up inside one of the towers during “le coup” he panics when the police show up and leaves. According to everyone interviewed in ‘Man on Wire‘, this character was not a stoner in any way, shape or form. So exactly why Robert Zemeckis went in this direction for this minor character in ‘The Walk‘ is questionable. Especially since his stoner schtick isn’t even remotely funny.
The first half of ‘The Walk‘ is decent biopic fare with the main character being the main character while also portraying his first public performance doing a high-wire act between the two towers of the Notre Dame cathedral. It’s when “le coup” springs into action that ‘The Walk‘ truly comes alive and reveals itself to be more akin to a heist movie…where nothing is getting stolen. ‘The Walk‘ has a wonderful energy to it as the group try and plan their break-in, do dozens of recces of the building site, plan their schedule once they break in and testing out different ways to get the wire from one tower to another with a 1,350 foot drop and a 138 foot gap between the towers.
The pacing is non-stop and it’s genuinely fascinating to see how these starving artists managed to pull it off, including many random moments that took place during the break-in that are mysteries unto themselves such as the stranger in a suit on the roof or the random walkie-talkie. Incidentally, there’s a security guard in the movie whose face is obscured by shadows and his voice sounds exactly like Tom Hanks.
I can’t find ANY evidence of Tom Hanks’ involvement in the movie and he’s not credited at all in the film, but I’m almost certain that Tom Hanks did a cameo for Robert Zemeckis in this movie (he did star in ‘Forrest Gump‘, ‘Cast Away‘ and ‘The Polar Express‘ after all).
But when Philippe Petit does get to the top, sets up the wire and takes his first steps at 7:00am on the morning of August 7th…it’s beyond incredible filmmaking. Zemeckis has always been ahead of the curve in terms of his technological prowess and the titular sequence of ‘The Walk‘ is a clear demonstration of a masterclass filmmaker at the top of his game. The cinematography, sound-design, the editing and Gordon-Levitt’s performance all come together to bring this never-before-seen sequence to life. It’s an astonishing set-piece that may overshadow pretty much everything that has come before it, but it’s easily worth the price of admission on its own.
And in 3-D, it’s another story entirely. Those with nervous dispositions, or a fear of heights may not be able to sit through the nerve-wracking, lengthy sequence where Petit walks across the wife, a quarter of a mile above the ground, staining the wire with his bloodied foot (due to an injury he sustained three weeks previously while on a recce). The feeling of vertigo is very very real. ‘The Walk‘ was filmed in 3-D and has clearly been designed from conception with the format in mind and there’s a real feeling of height. Coupled with wonderful sound-design that puts the audience on that wire with Philippe and it’s one of the most surreal, terrifying and captivating experiences put to screen in recent memory.
There’s a reason Robert Zemeckis is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
That’s not to say that the high-wire walk is the only visually arresting sequence in the movie. ‘The Walk‘ is full of wonderful and inventive visual touches. You can tell that Zemeckis’ experience in animation, where the camera has no limitations and can do pretty much anything, has given him less inhibition when it comes to framing shots and staging transitions. The camerawork is dizzying and sometimes it becomes a character in and of itself. Personally, I love this type of inventive cinematography, but others might find it a bit much. For me, it worked and you’ve at least got to give the guy props for trying.
Incidentally, my mind was blown when I discovered this movie only cost $35M. If you had told me that ‘The Walk‘ had at $100M budget then I would have believed you.
The make-up is subtle but works, the sound-design as mentioned before is Oscar-calibre, the green-screen work is SEAMLESS, the music by Alan Silvestri is brilliant and adds to the fairytale theme while not sound overly cartoony or sentimental and it’s edited incredibly tightly. While the production is strong and accomplished throughout, it’s really during the high-wire sequence where everyone on the production team is firing on all cylinders.
‘The Walk‘ is an entertaining and pretty decent biopic in the first half and is a mind-blowing theatrical experience in the second half. The heist is smartly presented on-screen, Philippe Petit is an endearing protagonist despite being a bit too romanticised and while the supporting characters are flatly written, they’re acted with conviction and heart. But it’s really in the final act of ‘The Walk‘ where it becomes one of the most engaging and brilliant cinematic experiences of 2015, though those with nervous dispositions need not apply. In fact, the titular walk is so effective and so staggeringly well presented that it might overshadow almost everything that’s come before it. It’s not a deep biopic and anyone wanting more character might want to watch the ‘Man on Wire‘ documentary, but ‘The Walk‘ manages to engage on both a technical and artistic level and the final walk itself is the type of sequence that the big-screen movie-going experience was made for. This is NOT a movie where you wait for DVD.
I give ‘The Walk‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 11th Oct 15